The evidence is clear: taking care of your staff’s mental health will pay dividends.
No one knows the exact statistics for occurrences of mental illness in the UK – in 2009, mental health charity Mind put the number at 1 in 4, and this year the Where’s Your Head At campaign found it closer to 1 in 2 – but Fiona* remembers exactly the day when she found herself among them.
‘I was just driving one day, and had a panic attack in the car’, she says. ‘After that it started happening very quickly. I couldn’t leave my house, I couldn’t do anything, I couldn’t even go into a shop and talk to anyone.’
For Fiona, a confident career woman in her forties, the experience was bewildering, and nowhere more so than at her high-pressured City firm. Suddenly even talking to colleagues was impossible, let alone meeting with clients. She stuttered, shook and cried with every interaction. Her employer didn’t know how to manage it.
‘I sat across a desk from an HR person, and she said to me “I literally don’t know what to do for you”’, she remembers. Her GP diagnosed her with an anxiety disorder, and signed her off work for a month. Upon her return, she was moved into a quiet corner and stripped of almost all her responsibilities. She was happy with that at the time, she says – but as she learned to manage her anxiety, her bosses refused to hand any of her old tasks back. Eventually, stymied, she left.
Unfortunately Fiona’s experience is not unusual: many people report feeling a taboo around discussing their mental health at work, something Mind describes as a ‘culture of fear and silence’. According to their research, more than one in five employees surveyed admitted calling in sick to work rather than disclose a mental health issue. And this reticence carries a high price for employees and employers alike.
In 2013, the City of London found that poor mental health cost businesses an astonishing £10.4 billion a year. Decreased productivity, sick days and hiring and training replacements are all drains on a business, to say nothing of the emotional costs of poor morale and stress.
So it seems clear that an employer who manages mental health issues well will reap the benefits, both financial and emotional. Upper-level management can lead the way, both by talking about their own mental health struggles if appropriate, and working to create a culture of openness and acceptance. Training courses can be provided to management, teaching them the signs to look for and the best ways to respond when approached by a subordinate.
Martin Coyd OBE, a long-standing advocate for mental wellbeing at work, knows this from experience. As Head of Environment, Health and Safety at Lend Lease Europe, he oversaw the training of over a hundred Mental Health First Aiders, and encouraged all managers and supervisors to complete a three-hour MHFA-Lite training course. These days, as Operations Director for Health, Safety and Wellbeing at Mace, he supports Mates in Mind, a programme aiming to improve mental health across the construction industry in the UK. He says:
‘Bringing mental health up in conversation is never easy at first. However, I have learned that many people are waiting for an opportunity, permission perhaps, to share a little bit about how they feel, an insight into their world and what’s important to them, what’s hurting them’.
Fiona agrees, encouraging compassion as well as crisis management. She was completely honest in the first interview with her new employer, and they responded by making the adjustments she needed.
‘[My director] would say, “If it all goes horribly wrong, what’s the worst that could happen? You’re not going to lose your job! It’s not the end of the world”. And that was really helpful because there was no pressure on me. I knew there’d be no repercussions whatsoever’.
Mr Coyd concludes:
‘Creating a safe environment, removing the fear of the anticipated negative reaction, of ridicule and the wonderful moment when we recognise that we aren’t alone is sometimes all that we need. Backed up by competent, confident supporters who can keep us safe, the transition can be quick and lead to rapid, sustainable improvement -- a game-changer’.
‘The impact can be felt by everyone. Certainly those reaching out for, and getting support. And those who don’t want or need it immediately, but do recognise that this is a good place, one where people are cared about and for. A great place to work. One I will stay at.’
We can only hope, as employers learn more, share more and reach out to their staff, that more of them will feel the same.
*names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals
1. McManus, S., Meltzer, H., Brugha, T. S., Bebbington, P. E., & Jenkins, R. (2009). Adult psychiatric morbidity in England, 2007: results of a household survey. The NHS Information Centre for health and social care.